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BIG EYE’S ONLY TEEN SHOW : CBS’ ‘FAST TIMES’ IS MORE NBC’S SPEED

The Washington Post

One of the problems faced by “Fast Times,” the new sitcom about high school life, is that it’s an NBC show on CBS. Every network tries to appeal to all age groups, but it is NBC that specializes in building young urban audiences whereas the CBS audience skews older and more rural.

“I never really realized how dowdy the network is that we’re being programmed for,” said Allen Rucker, executive producer of “Fast Times,” which in its four outings on the network hasn’t earned particularly lustrous Nielsen ratings. “We’re doing an NBC show on CBS. There are no other shows that feature kids on CBS. So how do you promote a show about kids?”

It isn’t whining to say that “Fast Times” would have stood a much better chance of finding an audience on NBC, where younger viewers apparently feel at home. Indeed, you could put “Fast Times” right after “Cosby” or right before “Miami Vice” and it would be almost a guaranteed smash hit. But then, in those lush time slots, so would “The Pia Zadora Show: That’s My Pia.”

None of this is to say that “Fast Times” is only for children. It’s designed for adult enjoyment, too. Rucker thinks it should appeal particularly to young parents who are worried about their children entering adolescence, that dank, dark age. “Fast Times” doesn’t paint it in somber or, the usual alternative, silly tones.

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The next episode (tonight at 8 on CBS) is a good example of how humane and subtly funny the show is. The segment, “My New Best Friend,” has two parallel plot lines. In one, the radically cute Stacy, played by Courtney Thorne-Smith, is hurt when her best friend Linda, played by Claudia Wells, starts hanging around with another girl instead of her.

“Linda,” Stacy tells a classmate, “is turning into a real dweeb.” And you know what that means--more or less. She also asks her pal Ratner (Wally Ward), “Do you ever feel like you’re not cool enough for your own friends?”

It’s the kind of situation that rings true, and it plays out intelligently. Meanwhile, the other plot line has long-suffering history teacher Arnold Hand, played by the consummate pro Ray Walston, fleeing the classroom for a vice principal’s job when he decides he just can’t take it any more.

The breaking point comes when he asks a classroom full of students to tell him who assassinated President McKinley and they all sit there like ice sculptures, even when he begs them, implores them, and offers 10 bucks for the correct answer.

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There is also a subplot on this show, minor but compelling: It seems a tarantula has ever-so-gingerly sauntered away from the classroom where he was to have been a visual aid for the lecture, “Arachnids: Friend or Foe?”

It isn’t easy to resolve one story, much less two, in the 22 minutes of program time on a TV sitcom. But with finesse and aplomb, and elan and eclat, and maybe with an eclair and a croissant as well, “Fast Times” brings it off. And unlike most TV and cinematic treatments of adolescence, this one insists you can talk about teen-agers without getting into the subjects of illegal drugs, illicit sex and satanic rock lyrics.

Indeed, “Fast Times” is an awfully ingratiating weekly vignette. Rucker doesn’t claim it to be an earthshaking television breakthrough. “They didn’t give me three years to research the (bleep) thing,” he said. “So right now you have appealing characters, good stories and a few laughs. Shows are organisms, and they evolve, and this could evolve into a fairly credible show.”

The question is whether CBS will have enough patience and optimism to let the show survive. Although its ratings have been low, it consistently has done better than the weak comedy that follows it, “Tough Cookies,” with Robby Benson.

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The nagging suspicion remains that “Fast Times” would have had happier days at NBC, where at least it could have been sampled by a slightly younger, perhaps more receptive, crowd.

Rucker’s not the only one worried about those CBS demographics. When “Fast Times” ends its trial run later this month, its time slot will go to “West 57th,” the hip CBS News magazine show, arguably another NBC show that is stuck on CBS.

Ironically, the flop NBC News magazine “American Almanac” would have been more at home on CBS, the network of “Murder, She Wrote.” If Reagan and Gorbachev can have a summit, maybe the programming boys at CBS and NBC could sit down over a six-pack of Perrier and sort this mess out.


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